The presentation of Anthony Trollope's Palliser novels on BBC television will, I hope, lead a great many people who have not yet read him to tackle the works of this formidable novelist.
He is formidable in many ways: not least because he wrote 47 novels, some of them 400,000 words lung, and covered more ground than any other English writer of fiction. But he is also formidable because of the consistency of his moral attitudes, and the quality of his thinking about moral problems.
Unlike his friend George Eliot, who greatly admired him, Trollope did not believe in systematic philosophy. He ruled out the possibility of a metaphysical structure which provided all the answers by a process of logical deduction.
He was concerned with "situa tion ethics" that is, the right course of action to he followed in a particular situation. Virtually all his novels place central characters in moral dilemmas, which they resolve rightly or wrongly.
Time and again, inclination fights against duty — as in the first of the Palliser novels, "Can You Forgive Her?", where Lady Glencora Palliser struggles with the temptation to run off with the handsome but worthless Burg() Fitzgerald.
Trollope's favourite author was Cicero. He wrote a book about him, which was badly received on publication and bas been almost unread ever since.
Yet ('kern provides the key to Trollope's social ethics, as is brilliantly shown in a little book by Ruth apRoberts, "Trollope: Artist and Moralist," published by ( hatto and Windus in 1971. It is the most thorough and percepthe analysis of Trollope's fiction, and convincingly demonstrates the consistency of his approach.
Of Cicero's works, Trollope most admired De Officiis, which might be termed a text-book of "hard cases", raising difficult moral and legal problems. His novels, Indeed, are based on hard cases, which are solved (or not) by the application of casuistry, in the best and proper sense of the word.
Trollope believed that the reading of Cicero at school was mainly responsible for the outlook of the "English Gentleman", considered of course as a moral rather than a social being: Cicero gave the gentleman his sense of honour, his pragmatism, his honesty, broadmindedness and consideration for others, his gentleness, in fact.
In the end, the gentleman always did the right thing, not because he had an ideology, or was particularly intelligent (he might even be very obtuse) but because he had acquired an instinctive capacity to judge individual cases on their intrinsic moral merits.
Thus Trollope's favourite hero, whom he considered the "perfect" gentleman, was Plantagenet Palliser. Palliser often begins by taking the unjust or un fair course, but he invariably steadies himself as the story unfolds, and eventually reaches the right judgment.
This occurs in "Can You Forgive Her?", in "The Prime Minister", and also — and most notably — in the last of the series, "The Duke's Children".
The concept of the gentleman was directly related to Trollope's idea of Christianity. He considered Cicero as an embryonic Christian and delighted to quote St. Augustine's remark that it was the study of Cicero which first aroused in him the desire for that wisdom which was to lead him to God (Confessions, VII,. vii, 17).
For Trollope, religion was not a set of immutable truths but a series of customs and conventions which enshrined a moral order and enabled men and women to live in just harmon with each other. This was also Cicero's view, and the Ciceronian gentleman was, to Trollope, the supporting pillar both of Christianity and of a social stability based on justice.
Thus, in the Palliser novels, Trollope traces the moral conflicts of men and women not just in their social and sexual relations with each other but in their relations with public life.
How does the Christian gentleman, in the shape of Palliser (the Anglican) and Phineas Finn (the Catholic) cope with the moral problems posed by politics? These two recurrent
themes are skilfully related in the counterpoint of plot and sub-plot. How much of this will emerge in the BBC version 1 cannot say:
but it is the essence of the Palliser books.
Only recently has Trollope's work received the critical atten tion it deserves and his stature as a moralist begun to emerge. But it is interesting to note that he was much admired by that other great fictional moralist, Tolstoy.
Tolstoy was reading "The Prime Minister" when he was at work on "Anna Karenina," and it was undoubtedly the death of Trollope's anti-hero, Fernand
Lopez, who throws himself under a train at Tear. Junction, which inspired the end of poor Anna.